A Look Inside The Vending Machine Refrigerant Debate

May 7, 2018

A 2015 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) edict requires a transition from the chemical typically used to chill a cold vending machine interior to one with a lower global warming potential (GWP) score. The original deadline was January of 2019. However, in April 2018, the EPA suspended the January 2019 transition date until it updates regulations requiring phase out of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), currently used in nearly all vending machine cooling systems. Despite the positive delay, there is no alternative chemical that would make the transition seamless. Jason Eberstein, director, state and federal affairs for NAMA, said, “Each chemical has inherit challenges.” (See sidebar.) The best option is using a hydrocarbon (HC), a chemical known as R-290, but it is not a perfect solution.

The opportunity and challenge

R-290 has a GWP close to zero, and is an acceptable refrigerant under EPA’s 2015 requirement. Eberstein also explains that the cost of R-290 is similar to the current chemical, R-134A. Manufacturers can meet Department of Energy (DOE) standards using R-290. “R-290 is really about the only feasible solution,” he said. “However, there is a wrinkle in R-290.”

According to Eberstein, R-290 is essentially 99.9 percent propane, making it extremely flammable. This means not only does the refrigeration system need to be reengineered, and tested, but other systems such as the vend motors for spirals also need to be recrafted to prevent sparks. Equipment manufacturers must ensure there is no spark to ignite a fire in the event of a refrigerant leak.Perhaps the greatest challenge, however, and one that will impact vending operators directly, is that building and safety codes severely restrict where vending machines utilizing a hydrocarbon can be placed. The restrictions are based on standards from the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL), both global independent safety associations. UL, which has modeled its placement restriction on ASHRAE guidelines, specifically states that a vending machine with flammable gas in not intended for use in high traffic environments such as those used for ingress or egress. Eberstein translates. “That means vending machines using R-290 as a refrigerant are not allowed in hallways, corridors, lobbies and other currently common locations,” he said. NAMA and industry manufacturers are working to change this.

Industry input is imperative

“This issue underscores how important advocacy is,” said Eberstein, “and the DC Fly-In.” Currently NAMA is working on multiple fronts to solve the issues posed for manufacturers and operators. In 2017, it petitioned the EPA to extend the deadline for compliance from January 2019 to January 2022. This aligns with the European date and gives the industry enough time to develop, test and redesign vending machine components to work with the flammable refrigerant. While the delay was granted pursuant to a court ruling, NAMA had several meetings with the EPA to stay at the forefront of the issue and continues to work on it. 

NAMA formally asked ASHRAE for an exemption for vending machines. ASHRAE refused without laboratory research and testing on the safety of hydrocarbon vending machines, even though hydrocarbons are used for refrigeration domestically and around the world. Industry manufacturers will begin a study in the Spring to better understand any potential hazards of a R-290 vending machine. The association hopes that the results of that study will influence a change at ASHRAE, and then cause UL to lift the current placement restrictions on vending machines cooled with a hydrocarbon. 

ASHRAE has created a separate working group to evaluate equipment using those flammable refrigerants and they will be the group monitoring the industry research, which is a positive step, indicates Eberstein.

One last hurdle is that California is on track to require a refrigerant transition away from R-134a on January 1, 2019, regardless of the EPA delay. NAMA and California operators have appealed to California regulators and will continue to engage with them to extend the transition date or allow flexibility.

Vending is in a difficult position. A new refrigerant is in the future, but there are still challenges to address. NAMA is fighting on multiple fronts including retaining an expert on refrigerant chemicals and systems. “We are confident we have not left a stone unturned on this issue,” finished Eberstein.

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